The Forever Bride (Sonnet Books)

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9780671000417: The Forever Bride (Sonnet Books)
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Celia Thomason has turned her gift for telling people what they want to hear into a career as a spiritualist, but when she meets a man whose vision pierces right through her parlor act, she finds her pride and her heart challenged. Original.

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About the Author:

Judith O'Brien is the author of six previous highly acclaimed romances: One Perfect Knight, To Marry a British Lord, Maiden Voyage, Once Upon a Rose, Ashton's Bride, and Rhapsody in Time. Along with Jude Deveraux and Judith McNaught, she was a contributor to the holiday story collection, A Gift of Love, with her delightful tale, "Five Golden Rings." Judith O'Brien lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her young son, and she is currently working on her next novel for Pocket Books.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One

New York City, 1849

They closed the window curtains and waited for the ghost to arrive.

"Are you prepared to see your husband now?"

The widow nodded once, twisting her thin silver wedding band. "I do not know what to say," she whispered, and then smiled just a little. "We were married for eight years, and now I do not know what to say."

Celia Thomason placed her hand on the young widow's wrist. "I understand, Mrs. Jenson. But your husband will be the same man, maintain the same character as he did before his passing. You needn't be shy."

"Don't people get better?" She cleared her throat once. "What I mean is, after they have passed over, don't they become kinder and more God-fearing?"

Even in the plush, cool dimness of the front room parlor, with the heavy green draperies blocking the late-afternoon sun, muffling the sounds of brisk footsteps and rolling carriages and clip-clopping horses, Celia could see glintings of white in the widow's hair. Yet she could not possibly have reached thirty -- perhaps she was even younger than Celia herself.

Her eyes, though, were old and tired, a flat gray framed by lids of dry crepe, her thin lips pallid and taut. Chronological years were meaningless to a woman who had labored hard her entire life, only to be forced into more dire circumstances now.

It had been several months since her husband perished in an appalling accident. A longshoreman, he was unloading great juke sacks of coffee, each one weighing hundreds of pounds. Apparently he had not realized how precariously balanced the highest sack was, and when he tripped, the entire pile tumbled onto him, leaving his wife and three children nearly penniless.

With what small funds remained, Mrs. Jenson had come to Celia Thomason, noted spiritualist, to seek advice from her late husband. Most of the city knew of Miss Thomason's remarkable skills. At a time when spiritualists were pitching tents, collecting money, and fleeing by dawn, Celia Thomason was solid, permanent. After all, she worked from her aunt's respectable brick home just off Washington Square, and had been conducting séances for almost four months. Thus she had stability and longevity on her side.

"Sometimes souls do become kinder after they have passed. Now close your eyes, Mrs. Jenson," Celia instructed. Hesitantly, the woman complied. "We must think of your husband, the best elements of his character. Think of his smile."

The widow tilted her head, then after a few moments, shook it. "To tell you the truth, Hiram didn't much take to smiling on a regular basis. When he did smile, why I knew he had been sipping from the jug again."

"I see." Celia patted the woman's hand. "Then imagine his kindness to your children, his tenderness towards the babies."

The widow leaned forward, her brow drawn in concentration. The seconds seemed to yawn with the wait as Mrs. Jenson searched her memory. Finally she sighed. "Miss Thomason, try as I might, I can't recall any such moments. Poor Hiram suffered terribly from the bilious colic, and he thought the children made it worse, what with their noise and racket-making and all."

"I see. Well, then think of his tenderness towards you. When you were courting, and he was a romantic young man in love and..."

The widow shook her head again, eyes still dutifully closed. "He wasn't ever much on tenderness, Miss Thomason. Or romantic. I thought that would come in time, after we married, but...well. All that came were the children. No, Hiram had many good qualities, but he was not what one would call a tender man."

"Then dwell on those good qualities. Think of them one by one."

The widow nodded eagerly, then her face fell slowly. "Let me think," she began.

"As a provider?" Celia offered. "He was a good provider for his family, was he not?"

"Hiram could have been a good provider had he applied himself," the widow said softly. "But he wasn't much on business. More often than not I had to take the coins from his pockets at night when he came home after..." Her face reddened even in the darkness. "After a hard day of work, he said a man deserved a strong drink or two. So I would take the coins and use them to help with the eggs. I sell eggs and sometimes butter, you see, and more and more, we had to rely on the egg money."

"Of course." Celia squeezed her hand. "Then think of him at church, standing beside you and the children and...Is anything wrong?"

"Well, Miss Thomason, the only time I recall Hiram at church was a few months ago."

"Then think of that image!" Celia cried, relieved. "Think of him..."

"It was his funeral."

"Oh."

"But he was handsome, I will admit, in his clean shirt and all."

"Indeed. Well, then, is that how you would prefer to think of him?"

"I suppose so." She bit her lower lip. "His shirt was so nice and clean. His face was shaved so close it almost shined. I don't reckon his fingernails had ever been so tidy."

"Then let's imagine your Hiram all clean and shaved, shall we?"

The widow nodded and closed her eyes even tighter in concentration.

They sat in silence for a few moments, the outside street sounds a faraway din. The widow seemed to relax, adjusting to having her eyes closed, being in a strange parlor with plush carpet beneath her feet and the smooth mahogany table wood beneath her hands.

"Now I will summon my spirit guides," Celia instructed. "Hopefully they will help you communicate with your husband. Are you ready, Mrs. Jenson?"

The other woman nodded. "Yes, yes. I believe so."

"Very well. Keep your eyes closed while I reach out to the other side."

For more long moments both women remained silent. Then finally Celia's spoke in a much-altered voice, a deeper register with flat inflections, a peculiar monotone. It was a mechanical-sounding voice, as if operated by the gears of a clock. "The spirits are gathering now. They are bringing him, your husband..."

She jumped. "Is he here? Is he in this room?"

"Yes. Yes. The spirits say yes." She maintained the strange tone. "He is here to help you."

"Can you see him?" Her voice was rising. "Can I look?"

"No. Do not look now. But he's beside you, and the spirits say he is gentle and loving."

"Hiram?"

"Yes. It is Hiram."

"I'm so sorry about the shoes, Hiram!" The widow spoke into the air, winding her black-edged handkerchief into a knot. "Please don't be angry. I just want to make sure you're not angry, that you won't haunt me or the children. It wasn't our fault, the shoes!"

"Oh, he's not angry!" Celia rushed. Then she returned to the mechanical voice. "No. He wishes to convey that he is pleased. Wait a moment." As if listening to ghostly voices, she paused, then continued. "He is happy about the shoes."

"He is? About the shoes?" For the first time a note of skepticism crept into her voice. She stiffened and opened her eyes, glancing around the parlor. "Where is he, then? I don't see him. We were married for eight years, Miss Thomason. Why can I not see him?"

Celia's expression remained blank, her eyes wide and unblinking. "The spirits say you were not ready yet for the glorious vision. But do not fear. Your husband will soon make himself known to you."

Then there was a noise, soft at first. "What's that?" The widow looked around the darkened room, to the settee, the wing chairs, the tea table. The somber wood trim added to the general feeling of fashionable gloom and clutter. Then she glanced toward the fireplace, cold and bare in spite of the November chill outside. Fires were never used during sessions, it was explained to the clients, as the crackling interfered with Miss Thomason's communication with those beyond.

Mrs. Jenson had located the source of the noise. A delicate blue and white porcelain vase on the mantelpiece was rocking back and forth, evenly, rhyth

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